A Minute, a Man and a Mongoose

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Welcome to The One-Minute Grammager: straightforward answers to 10 usage questions in just 60 seconds.

--Is it "nerve-wracking" or "nerve-racking"? The latter. "Wrack" means "to completely destroy," as in "wrack and ruin." "Rack" means "to torture, torment," as in "rack your brains" or "nerve-racking."

--Do we wait with "baited breath" or "...Read more

Headlines Provoke 'After'thoughts

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. Lately I've been annoyed by the misuse of "after" in news headlines, e.g., "Seven hurt after lightning strike" (print) and "House demolished after two-alarm fire" (TV). The accompanying news stories made it clear that the lightning did indeed hurt the people and the fire did indeed destroy the house. When did "after" become a synonym for "...Read more

Getting 'Judge'mental About Usage

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Hear ye! Hear ye! The Word Court is now in session. Today we will rule on three cases:

All Tolled vs. All Told

This phrase is most often used to indicate a complete accounting of items, e.g., "All told, 23 women and 24 men enrolled in the course." Some writers use "tolled," perhaps because collecting a toll or tolling a bell might involve ...Read more

A Little Slice of Heaven

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. I've heard that the phrase "pie in the sky" was coined by the radical labor leader Joe Hill. Is that true? -- Carl Faith via email

A. That's not a "pie in the sky" folk tale. It IS true!

Joe Hill, a member of the radical union Industrial Workers of the World, was a legendary labor activist and songwriter. In 1911, he wrote a parody of the...Read more

Getting Possessive About Nouns

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. I recently told a fellow Steinway Society board member that no apostrophe is needed in "winners recital" (a concert featuring several pianists) any more than one is needed in "teachers union." What we have here is a noun modifying another noun. What's that called? -- Fritz Marston, Ewing, N.J.

A. A noun mound? Actually, the term for a noun...Read more

'If Not' Poses Knotty Questions

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

In crafting a college recommendation for a student recently, I unintentionally sailed into the murky mist of ambiguity by writing: "She is very bright, if not brilliant."

Hmm... Does this mean she's very bright but not brilliant, or very bright and maybe even brilliant? I meant the latter, of course, but the "if not" is ambiguous.

So to all ...Read more

If the 'T' Fits, Wear It

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. Why do we say something "fits to a T"? -- Al Cohen, Newington, Conn.

A. Well, this idiom definitely doesn't come from "fits to a T-shirt," because every T-shirt I've worn lately is either too baggy or too tight. A large T-shirt makes me look like a draped haystack, and a medium makes me feel like a tightly wrapped mummy.

In fact, the "T" ...Read more

English Goes on a Toot!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

See whether you can spot the errors in these excerpts from newspapers and magazines:

1. "Every student ... started out under Weene's tootiledge?" Was he a trumpet teacher? (submitted by Paul Burton, Staten Island, N.Y.)

2. (From a restaurant review) "I look forward to more of the creative and delicious combinations that my pallet so ...Read more

Stop Taking Verbal 'Self'ies!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

As my friends know, I'm a mild-mannered and easy-going man. (Well... OK, there was that one time when the guy stole my parking space.)

So when it comes to grammar and usage, I often tolerate errors that more doctrinaire word experts would condemn, e.g., the misuse of "disinterested" for "uninterested" ("the students grew disinterested"), the ...Read more

Getting a 'Grip' on Hollywood Job Titles

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

"Gaffer"? "Key Grip"? "Foley Artist"?

As the Academy Awards approach, let's explore the origins of those strange job titles that scroll by during movie credits. We'll get help from Richard Weiner's book "The Skinny about Best Boys, Dollies, Green Rooms, Leads and Other Media Lingo" (Random House, $14.95). Action!

On a film set, the "gaffer" ...Read more

Them's Fightin' Words!

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Grab your cudgel, mate! We're plunging into the origins of "donnybrook," "brouhaha" and "ruckus." And, because experts disagree about the sources of some of these words, you can expect a real hair-pulling match as disputatious amateurs and etymologists mix it up.

--Donnybrook: For more than six centuries, from 1204 to 1855, the good citizens ...Read more

Is 'Based Off' Off Base?

Knowledge / The Word Guy /

Q. When did "based on" morph into "based off"? When I was teaching, I heard my students say it a lot, e.g., "This movie was based off the book." I just saw it in print for the first time: "Two toys based off Walt Disney's hit animated film..." Ugh. Your take on this? -- Carole Shmurak, Farmington, Conn.

A. The "Frozen" craze frosts me, too. ...Read more

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